Johnny Rivers

Last Train to Memphis

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Johnny Rivers was about 15 years removed from the recording studio and nearly 20 from a hit when he cut this album between 1996 and 1998. During the '60s and early '70s, Rivers had been one of the most consistently successful American solo artists: his covers of previously proven R&B/blues, folk and rock/pop songs (Chuck Berry's "Memphis," Willie Dixon's "Seventh Son," Leadbelly's "Midnight Special") and new tunes written to order (P.F. Sloan's "Secret Agent Man," Jim Hendricks' "Summer Rain," Rivers' own "Poor Side of Town") were all quality stuff that have demonstrated proven staying power, and Rivers was able to maintain his career performing them for years. For his studio comeback, Rivers turned to Peter Guralnick's Elvis Presley biography, Last Train to Memphis, for inspiration. Having grown up in Baton Rouge, LA after a childhood move from New York, the southern sounds of rockabilly, blues, and country gave the young Rivers his musical foundation, and the tracks here, though not always conforming strictly to those genres or paying direct tribute to the region or the era, are certainly influenced by that earth-shifting music. Rivers co-wrote several of the album's songs with Jack Tempchin, who had given him his last big chart hit with "Swayin' to the Music (Slow Dancin')" back in 1977. Like that ballad, the pair's new compositions here are well-crafted and beautifully performed -- Rivers' voice is as strong and unmistakable as it was in his hit-making days. His own compositions, with the exception of the opening "Down at the House of Blues," which comes off as a commercial for the same-named chain of clubs regardless of any lack of intent to do so, are also strong. Nonetheless, his true Johnny Rivers-ness kicks into full gear when he returns to the familiar territory of remaking oldies: his interpretations of Muddy Waters' "Rollin' Stone" and the old Casinos hit "Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye," written by John D. Loudermilk, are among the highlights. The Collector's Choice edition of the album, reissued in 2006, tacks on a bonus track, a tribute to one of Memphis' other true heroes, Carl Perkins, titled "Blue Suede Blues."

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